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Molpus chairing board overseeing $200M timber endowment

It might be a little surprising that a former Democratic candidate for governor in Mississippi, Dick Molpus, would be chosen by Republican President George W. Bush to oversee a new $200-million endowment created under the terms of the Softwood Lumber Agreement (SLA) between the United States and Canada. But there is nothing partisan about the efforts to use the funds to help timber-reliant communities in the U.S.

“I think the White House had some sensitivity to charges the endowment was going to be used for political purposes,” said Molpus, who will chair an 11-member board that will decide how the endowment should be invested. “The President and I come from different political parties, but I have spent my life in the timber business and community development. We have put together a bi-partisan board and politics won’t have a part in our decisions. The issues of forest health and economically prosperous communities cross political party lines. We all see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build something from the ground up that will leave a lasting legacy.”

The United States Endowment for Forestry and Communities Inc. will operate as a nonprofit using proceeds from the endowment to promote sustainable forestry and to assist timber-reliant communities with economic development.

“It took much heavy lifting by many folks on both sides of the border to reach the historic softwood lumber agreement between our two great nations,” said U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins. “And now the creation of this endowment represents another dramatic step forward in this process as it recognizes the need to protect and sustain our natural environment while continuing to enhance economic opportunities for citizens on both sides of the border.”

The Softwood Lumber Agreement resolved trade disputes with Canada regarding softwood lumber imports. Of the duty deposits collected since 2002, about $4.3 billion will be returned to the exporters; $500 million goes to the Coalition for Fair Lumber Imports, the petitioners in the anti-dumping and countervailing duty cases; $50 million will be provided to a bi-national industry council; and $450 million will be disbursed to promote charitable efforts. In addition to the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities Inc., the American Forest Foundation is slated to receive $150 million, and Habitat for Humanity International gets $100 million.

Molpus, who is president of Molpus Woodlands Group, LLC, of Jackson and served as Secretary of State for Mississippi for three terms, said the endowment is currently just in its embryonic stage. But there are a lot of exciting possibilities.

“Even in the state we live in, you see examples of communities that have suffered as a result of changes in the timber business, for example, Moss Point and Natchez, and numerous cities in the eastern part of the state,” Molpus said. “We are going to work to promote sustainable forestry at the same time we create economic opportunities in these small, more rural communities.”

One possibility that could be a shot in the arm to small timber-reliant communities is projects to convert wood waste to synthetic fuels. Molpus said this uses part of the forest that has essentially been wasted.

Wood to energy is just one idea for the nonprofit that will operate in all 50 states in the U.S. including Hawaii. Molpus expects many other good ideas from the team of board members who have been chosen to be reflective of every timber producing area in the U.S.

“These are men and women who have spent their lives either in rural community development or the forest industry,” Molpus said. “I think it is a very distinguished board. So we will see some bold ideas come from that group. And with investments from $200 million to spend, we will be able to partner with other entities and increase that amount.”

The West Coast and certain parts of South are seeing many forests being decimated by insects. Molpus said they want to look for ways to restore those forests to health and protect the jobs that are being threatened because of the loss of the timber base.

The executive director hired by the United States Endowment for Forestry and Communities Inc. also has ties to Mississippi. Carlton Owen, a native Mississippian from Pontotoc, is a graduate of Mississippi State University currently living in Greenville, S.C.

Owen said the endowment is expected to have about $10 million per year to spend. Obviously, that isn’t much money if spread between 50 states.

“We hope to be a catalyst for improvement, but obviously our limited funding isn’t going to allow us to move mountains all by ourselves,” Owen said. “What we are trying to do first is be very deliberate and strategic about what we can do. I like one of the things Dick Molpus has said, and that is we are pursuing systemic, transformative, sustainable change. That means we need to be very targeted in what we do. We could respond to literally thousands of requests to put a little money at this project or that project. No decisions have been made yet on what we will focus on, but the tendency is to think of doing a few things well instead of lots of little things.

“We very much believe in the leveraging concept. If we want to make an investment in change in an area, we want others to shoulder some of that opportunity, as well. We want to make an investment where the community leaders also see that need and opportunity. It really comes down to the fact we could make 10,000 $1,000 grants or 1,000 $10,000 grants, and in a few years might not see that much change. So we want to demonstrate things that work for change that could then be replicated in other places. Funding limits won’t allow us to go about and do it everywhere.”

Owen said the first half of 2007 will be used to do a methodical review of proposals that will have the most impact. The board wants to avoid making quick decisions on investments that might turn out to be a mistake.

Two focal areas will be sustainable forestry practices that protect working forests and to help timber-reliant communities transition to new types of forest-based economies.

“Because this was established as an endowment, we do hope to have a lasting legacy,” Owen said. “We are thankful the negotiators of the agreement agreed to the endowment concept. That matched our thinking exactly.”

Owen is founder of The Environmental Edge, LLC, which has worked for the past six years to “bring business and the environment together” to benefit both.

“I’m honored and excited about the opportunity at hand,” said Owen. “The caliber of people assembled and the chance to work together with diverse interests from all across the nation in partnership to ensure that our working forests continue to yield a wide array of benefits to society is truly humbling.”

For more information visit the endowment’s Web site at www.usendowment.org.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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